EXCEPT FOR SOME steamy pages of Leaves of Grass, sex is probably the last thing that comes to mind when thinking about the 19th-century United States. The bloody Civil War, the opulent Gilded Age, the railroads and smoke-belching factories don’t seem to allow much room in the imagination for eroticism, much less anything as blatant and gleefully shameless as pornography. Yet those phenomena did coexist, of course. Even Mark Twain wrote (anonymously) a few scraps of comical and downright forensic porn that would likely shock you.

Amy Werbel’s Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock is the biography of a self-appointed champion of moral “purity,” a man who fought against such unwholesome horrors as Old Master paintings of naked women. Comstock was the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) and chief architect of the Comstock Act of 1873, a federal law that made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd and/or lascivious” material or “any drug or medicine […] for the prevention of conception” through the US mail. Lust on Trial conveys the amazing hold that Comstock, “chief if not sole arbiter of obscenity in the country,” had on the United States’s culture and laws, from the NYSSV’s founding in the late 1870s until roughly the end of World War I, when such Victorian-era absurdities were finally overthrown by an exhausted nation.

Comstock was that most unfortunate freak of nature, a born censor. His religiously warped hatred of the human body was so extreme that a nude statue could send him into paroxysms of rage. He was, in other words, a sick-minded son of a bitch. The hell of it is that this anti-humanist zealot was given legal authority to personally search out and destroy printers’ stocks of “lewd” material, to literally burn “offensive” books by the thousands, to enter galleries and demand that “obscene” artworks be taken down under threat of prosecution (Comstock once issued such an order to a New York barbershop for displaying a picture of a ballerina in tights).

Reading Werbel’s dense and enjoyable book, one gets the feeling that this deeply twisted man wanted the United States reduced to the cultural level of a kindergarten. Thankfully, the author shows that, although Comstock had many followers (religious folks, mostly), he also faced numerous detractors and enemies at all levels of society. As with a shrewish spouse, the general public initially put up with the dictatorial censor, until finally realizing that they couldn’t stand him. By the 1890s, Comstock was subjected to constant, mocking ridicule by The New York Times.

Werbel details the NYSSV’s overbearing censorship campaigns, directed against purveyors of anything that smacked of lust, “vice,” or any overly revealing imagery likely to “inflame the passions.” These campaigns could be sickening in their cruelty, but it’s gratifying to learn of the increasing resistance to Comstock, especially when the condemnations came from prominent persons. In a chapter entitled “Artists, Libertarians, and Lawyers Unite: The Rise of the Resistance, 1884-1895,” Werbel notes that the American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase

supported a proposal to raise money to send Comstock to Europe for a “careful tour of the great galleries” that would improve his “taste and judgment.” [Sculptor] Augustus Saint-Gaudens also chimed in, insisting that “the decision as to the morality of a work of art should not be left to a man like Comstock.”

After a while, Werbel adds, “the Times dropped any pretense of neutrality and concurred […] that Comstock exemplified ‘persons of a low grade of intelligence and a prurient turn of mind.’” The Springfield Daily Republican called Comstock “the most preposterous ass that walks on two legs,” while the Chicago Tribune surmised that the “utterly hopeless task of regulating the morals of New York” had rendered him “insane.” There’s no doubt H. L. Mencken had Comstock in mind when he wrote his famous essay “Puritanism As a Literary Force,” in which he commented on “the astoundingly ferocious and uncompromising vice-crusading of today. […] The new Puritanism,” he wrote, “is not ascetic, but militant. Its aim is not to lift up saints but to knock down sinners.” Mencken praised so-called “immoral” American novelists like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser as exemplars of artistic freedom, realism, and art-for-art’s-sake.

“At middle age,” according to Werbel, “Anthony Comstock was one of the most unpopular men in America.” And why not? He helped to jail publishers, printers, gallery owners, and merchants by testifying against them in court. He ruined lives for nothing. He was a scourge and a terror, backed by the narrow-minded and feared by the timid, a kind of Joe McCarthy of his day.

Lust on Trial has its fun side, documenting the long-forgotten netherworld of post–Civil War erotica, both artistic and literary, and the surprising underground popularity of “rubber goods” such as condoms, sex toys, dildos, S&M devices, and other carnal amusements. These objects served a no doubt good-humored, snickering, perhaps guilt-ridden clientele, both male and female. We learn too the names of purveyors of risqué items, like the printer Thomas Scroggy, “whom Comstock relentlessly pursued between 1874 and 1884” for sending obscene materials through the mail. This unsung pioneer of what we would now call “gags” advertised his funny joke items in the Grand Fancy Bijou Catalogue of the Sporting Man’s Emporium (“sporting” was a euphemism back then for horny). The Catalogue sold adult sex toys side-by-side with joy-buzzers, sneeze powders, and whoopee cushions; over time, the sex aids fell away from the more easily marketable “gag gifts,” which ended up in crime magazines and comic books. Unearthing this history is an amazing feat of pop-cultural scholarship.

In the end, Comstock reaped the whirlwind. Werbel documents “the eagerness of (male) reporters to call him out as an unwelcome brother.” He received a constant stream of hate mail, including “a collection of smallpox scabs, labelled as such,” which sent him off panicking to the doctor. He was “unwelcome in male spheres that embraced exactly the type of humor and culture he spent his […] life trying to suppress and even eradicate,” Werbel writes, adding that “[u]nlike most of the men he worked with and prosecuted, Comstock had no obvious circle in which to fraternize.” It’s hard to sympathize with the man since he brought this well-deserved isolation upon himself through his sheer bloody-mindedness.

Not surprisingly, he was also a horrible husband. A neighbor of the Comstocks in Summit, New Jersey, reported that his wife Maggie “worried about her husband, that her life [was] a tense and protracted agony of anxiety. […] He was always provoking quarrels, this mad, obstinate husband of hers, always running his opinionated head into something that was not his affair.”

Upon his death in 1915, The New York Times noted with sly accuracy: “Where public opinion and the courts held that Mr. Comstock had been wrong in finding evil in what purported to be art, the controversy was the finest of advertising.” “[D]espite Comstock’s best efforts,” Werbel writes, “American lust did not diminish.” (Thank God for that or we wouldn’t be here!) Werbel’s research into the life of this flesh-hating, statue-draping, cross-bearing, book-burning zealot should serve as a warning against fanaticism of any kind, especially in this age of ideological extremes. “[W]hile it is certainly possible to put lust on trial,” Werbel notes, “the effort is ultimately fruitless.”

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Anthony Mostrom is a journalist living in Los Angeles. He was formerly a Los Angeles Times columnist and is a book reviewer and travel writer for the LA Weekly.